White Sands National Park – Top 7 Must-Do Things

Soaptree Yucca
Soaptree Yucca is one of the few plants that thrive in the gypsum dunes.

Did you hear? What was formerly New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument has been upgraded to America’s 62nd National Park! President Trump signed it into law on the 21st of December 2019. It was passed inside of a defense spending bill, which is odd. For those of you not familiar with American politics, cramming un-related items into larger bills is how things get done. Usually, I find this infuriating but in this case I like that White Sands has the National Park recognition. It is an amazing place! If you haven’t been, we’ve got the seven best reasons to start planning your trip to White Sands National Park today.

  1. The Largest Gypsum Dunes in the World
  2. Hiking the Alkali Flat Trail
  3. Driving Through the Dunes
  4. Camping in the Dunes
  5. Getting Lost in White Sands National Park
  6. Sledding the Dunes
  7. The Birth of the Atomic Age
Sunset at White Sands National Park
The early morning or evening light creates a stunning atmosphere in White Sands National Park.

#1 – Seeing the Largest Gypsum Dunes in the World

Massive White Sands
The white gypsum dune field is massive covering 275 square miles.

These white dune fields cover 275 square miles. That is a lot of sand, I mean gypsum! This is the largest gypsum dunes in the world and by a lot. The second and third largest gypsum dune fields both come in at just over 3 square miles each. That isn’t a typo. This dune field is 9,000 times larger than the next biggest. White Sands National Park protects a truly unique and wonderful landscape, but this isn’t sand at all.

Why Are Gypsum Dunes So Rare?

Gypsum, unlike sand, is a water soluble substance so in most places it dissolves and flows down rivers and streams and into lakes and oceans. The White Sands is located in a basin and no water escapes the area. When this gypsum gets wet it rolls off the dunes and into the bottom of the basin where it dries and crystallizes. Then the notoriously brutal New Mexico winds sweep in and break the gypsum crystals apart, sweeping the sand-sized particles back onto the top of the dunes.

Gypsum Crystals
Gypsum crystals form in basins before being torn apart by the wind.

#2 – Hiking the Alkali Flat Trail

The Alkali Flat Trail isn’t the only trail in the park, but it is the longest. It is also the best one to get an idea of how large the White Sand Dunes are and how they were created. Located at the end of the Park’s Loop Drive this hiking trail leads up and over the shifting dune fields and into the Alkali Flat which is where the water settles after a rain. The Alkali Flat is one of the larger basins where the gypsum crystals form before being blown away by the next strong wind.

Hiking the Alkali Flat Trail
Jennifer hikes along the 5-mile Alkali Flat Trail. The markers are the only way to follow the wind swept path.

Pro Tip

Hike the Alkali Flat Trail or any of the park’s other trails early in the morning or late in the afternoon. The white dunes reflect all the sun’s light making it a very blinding traverse when the sun is high in the sky.

 Endless Gypsum
White Sands National Park, where white meets blue and it can all be blinding at mid-day.

#3 – Driving Through the Dunes

White Sands & the Milky Way Galaxy
Don’t miss the chance to get out and see the Milky Way above the White Sands.

Driving the Park’s only road is an adventure in and of itself. The relatively short 8-mile long road starts at the park’s visitor center and only entrance. As it leads into the heart of the park the gypsum dunes continually encroach on the asphalt. By the time you arrive at the juncture for the loop it is very likely that the black top will have entirely disappeared below the shifting sands. It will leave you feeling like you are driving across the Sahara Desert except it is astonishingly white.

Pro Tip

The Loop Drive also makes for a great bike ride. The park even hosts special rides where they will close down the road to bike-only traffic for full moon rides in April and October.

#4 – Camping in the Dunes

Camping in White Sands National Park
Camping in the dunes on the Backcountry Trail

Backcountry camping is one of our favorite activities here at NomadicMoments. We love the feeling of leaving civilization behind and experiencing a place in its raw, natural state. Camping in the White Sands is one of the best backcountry experiences in the National Park system. While the city of Alamogordo does create some light pollution, the sky it is very dark and the Milky Way unfolds above the sand in a magical way.

The dispersed camping loop is a relatively short and easy 2.5-mile loop so this is a great choice even for those with no experience with backcountry camping. However, hiking on gypsum “sand” can be difficult and the first of the sites is a mile back.

Pro Tip

These 10 dispersed campsites currently constitute the only camping inside the park although now that White Sands has the National Park status I am sure this will probably change. As of 2020 the sites are still first-come, first-served. They become available at 7:00AM each morning and when we were there they were sold out within an hour. Arrive early and head straight to the backcountry desk inside the visitor center to acquire your $3/person permit.

Milky Way over White Sands National Park
The night sky over White Sands is magical and the best way to experience it is by camping on the backcountry trail.

#5 – Getting Lost in White Sands National Park

This is actually my favorite thing about White Sand National Park, but it probably isn’t for everyone. While the park has only a few established hiking trails they do allow visitors to hike off trail. I love being able to break away from the crowd and hike into the raw wilderness. Of course, hiking off-trail is entirely “at your own risk” and it can be dangerous in this desert environment. Please, don’t actually get lost!

Shadows of White Sand
Getting off trail in White Sands National Park is amazing just make sure you have the skills to find your way back.

Pro Tip

Yucca in White Sands National Park
A Yucca plant at daybreak in White Sands National Park.

Be prepared for the desert environment and carry plenty of water, a map, a compass, and/or a GPS. Maps.me is a great phone app that works like a GPS but make sure you know how to use it and that your battery is charged. Let someone know what area of the park you will be exploring and when you will return. Please respect this amazing natural wonder and Leave No Trace. Click here for a full list of recommendations from White Sands National Park including what to do if you come across unexploded ordnance (this is a real thing).

$6 – Sledding the Dunes

Sledding at White Sands National Park
Sledding down the dunes is a thrill no matter your age.

Perhaps one of the best thing about the dunes being made of gypsum is that they absorb none of the sun’s heat leaving the sand-like particles cool to the touch on even the hottest of summer days. This makes the dunes of White Sands National Park great for sledding. If you are used to sledding sand dunes in places like Great Sand Dunes National Park you will find that the White Sands dunes are fairly small in height but are amazing because they remain cool to the touch all day long. This would be a great family outing and a way to make lasting memories with children.

#7 – Seeing the Birthplace of the Atomic Age

The birth of the Atomic Age occurred on a test site code named Trinity. This site is located about 60-miles to the north of White Sand National Park’s boundary. In the pre-dawn hours of July 16th, 1945 a plutonium bomb lit up the dark desert sky with an explosive force equivalent to 20 kilotons of TNT. In that split second the world changed forever. The United States had discovered a means of ending a devastating global war and the means of producing immense amounts of cheap energy. No matter how you feel about nuclear energy and the bombs used against Japan, this moment in history changed everything. Being near the area and/or visiting the Trinity site is a surreal experiences.

Can you imagine the first atomic bomb lighting up this landscape in the twilight hours of July 16th, 1945? The dawn of a new era.

Pro Tip

The Trinity Site is located on the White Sands Missile Range which is an active military base. For most of the year, this area remains off limits to civilians. But, for two days out of the year the base does allow visitors to walk the grounds of the Trinity site. The dates usually align with the first Saturday in April and October. Reservations are needed. Check out the Missile Range website for confirmed dates and full details.

Hiker on the Alkali Flat Trail
Jennifer on the edge of the Alkali Flat Trail.

Conclusion for visiting White Sands National Park

White Sands National Park - Top 7
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These are just 7 reasons we highly recommend planning a visit to the United States’ newest National Park. There is even more to be discovered in these shifting white sands and we suggest taking the time to discover every inch of this truly unique landscape. There is no other place on earth that is like this spot so go while the crowds are still small. The National Park status means more infrastructure and protection but it also means larger crowds and inevitably more restrictions. So, go now!

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. Vicky says:

    Details on how to enjoy our new National Park are great. What wonderful news to hear about new status.
    As always your pictures capture the natural beauty of our world.
    It was an adventure to explore the bit that I trampled and stumbled on. Rested while y’all climbed higher.

    1. NomadicMoments says:

      Yep. Great Sand Dunes NP is a great adventure as well. We really love both parks.

  2. Becky says:

    Fascinating! Makes me want to visit!

    1. NomadicMoments says:

      Glad you like the post. It is an amazing place. We hope to go back someday.

  3. Jenne says:

    I have my heart set on visiting White Sands, your images make me so eager to go there! Thanks for sharing the tips, I am excited to capture the milky way over the dunes like you wouldn’t believe!

    1. NomadicMoments says:

      It is one of the best! I hope to get back there one of these days myself.

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